Jiseul (지슬)

Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, so it becomes time to discuss the best releases from the Korean film industry from the year.

It’s been quite  year for Korean film. According to the Korean Film Council the industry crossed over the 200 million admissions mark for the first time in history, averaging just over 4 films per person; recently released drama The Attorney (변호인), based on former president Roh Moo-hyun’s early career, broke the box office record for single day admissions in December attracting over 540,000 moviegoers upon opening; Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (설국열차), the most expensive film in Korean cinema history, was released to critical and commercial acclaim; and Moon Byung-gon’s Safe (세이프) won the short film Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time the award has been bestowed upon a Korean director.

But back to the issue at hand – the top ten. ‘Best of’ lists always feel somewhat disingenuous as it’s impossible to have seen simply everything to emerge from the industry over the past 12 months. This also unfortunately applies to this particular list, particularly in regards to films released over the past month. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here are some great films that could potentially have been included in the top ten had they been seen – Moebius (뫼비우스)Hope/Wish (소원), Way Back Home (집으로 가는 길), and The Attorney.

However, without further ado, let’s press on with Hanguk Yeonghwa’s Top Ten of 2013:

Joint 1st – Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

Jiseul (지슬)

While Jiseul premiered at Busan in 2012, it was officially released nationwide in 2013 and for that reason jointly takes the number 1 spot. Director O Muel’s breathtaking film about the 1948 Jeju Island ‘Uprising’ (or rather ‘Massacre’) is one of those rare films that transcends the medium into art. The stunning cinematography is exquisitely captured through the black and white tones, while the realism-inducing long takes convey the atrocities endured by the Islanders with palpable melancholy. Shockingly, Jiseul was not submitted as Korea’s entry for the Academy Awards (with the honour instead going to Juvenile Offender), a presumably political decision due to the negative manner in which the Korean military are portrayed – a genuine shame as Jiseul is one of the best Oscar contenders Korea has produced in quite some time. Nevertheless, director O Muel’s beautifully haunting tribute is an absolute must-see. (See the full review here).

Joint 1st – Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju (한공주)

Han Gong-ju is without a doubt the best new film of 2013. Staggering powerful, heartbreaking and courageous, the film tells the story of high schooler Gong-ju who is forced to relocate to a new school due to a secretive event in her past. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an incredible film that wonderfully captures many of the social issues in contemporary Korea, confronting the themes of selfishness and corruption directly and in doing so evokes a maelstrom of emotional resonance. It is no stretch to say that Han Gong-ju is like a raw Lee Chang-dong film, one full of maturity and awareness yet with added indignation. Staggeringly, the film is also director Lee Su-jin’s feature-length directorial debut and, should he continue to helm films of this quality, Korea will have a new auteur in the making.

2nd – Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Pluto (명왕성)

Director Shin Su-won proves her win at Cannes for Circle Line (순환선) was no fluke with the release of the masterful Pluto. A former teacher before her venture into filmmaking, director Shin deftly employs her knowledge of the insanely-competitive Korean education system in exploring how students can become increasingly amoral in the bid for perfect grades  and an all-important university placement. What makes Pluto so special is not only the examination of corruption within the system but also the character development as Joon – wonderfully acted by Lee David – gradually succumbs to violent ambition. (See the full review here).

3rd – My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

My Place (마이 플레이스)

The best kind of documentaries are the ones that serve to enlighten, yet director Park Moon-chil goes one better with My Place in that he too is on a quest for knowledge. Initially believing that his sister is somewhat irresponsible for wishing to be a single-parent, director Park attempts to understand his sibling by investigating her past, which in turn leads to startling discoveries about his entire family. Through exploring cultural and generational differences as well as revealing – and attempting to heal – family trauma, My Place is a wonderful testament to family and forces audiences to address how well they know their own relatives. (See the full review here).

4th – Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

Snowpiercer (설국열차)

A pulse-pounding thrill-ride from start to finish, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is a momentous sci-fi epic. Based on the French comic Le Transperceneige, the film depicts a world devoid of life due to global warming with the last remnants of humanity hurtling around the world on the perpetually moving train ‘snowpiercer.’ What makes the film so fascinating is the manner in which  the class system is explored, examining the nature of revolution, the brainwashing inherent in education, as well as the potent symbolism laced throughout – particularly from Tilda Swinton’s brilliant channeling of Margaret Thatcher as the villainous Mason. Snowpiercer is also a triumph of production design, and ranks among the best science fiction films to emerge from the industry. (See the full review here).

5th – The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Brutally intense and profoundly disturbing, The Fake is a phenomenal indictment of the fraud that exists within society. The Korean title ‘Saibi’ is specific to religion, and potent symbolism abounds; the looming threat of a flood sends the local populace into a religious fervour as they compete for the ‘limited’ places in heaven. Interestingly director Yeon Sang-ho marries such weighty material with the generic conventions of the western, and the result is extraordinary – should the audience align with the fraudulent man of God, or the truthful-yet-devilish western anti-hero? (See the full review here).

6th – New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Taking a cue from Coppola’s The Godfather, director Park Hoon-jeong’s gangster epic New World is among the best examples of the genre in recent memory. As a screenwriter on I Saw The Devil and The Unjust director Park has experience in weaving bloodthirsty thrillers, and his vision in constructing a tale of vengeful gangsters attempting to fill a power vacuum is brilliant. The double-crosses and Infernal Affairs-esque clashes between men on both sides of the law are made all the more powerful with the stunning cinematography and visual finesse. (See here for the full review).

7th – Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

Cold Eyes (감시자들)

A remake of Hong Kong action-noir Eye in the Sky, Cold Eyes is a vastly different adaptation set in the shimmering metropolis of Seoul. The slick thriller is incredibly entertaining not only for the great pacing and exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase sequences, but also for the wonderful casting. Han Hyo-joo, so often relegated to being a pretty love interest, is excellent as the bold, smart and independent rookie, while Jeong Woo-seong is great as the steely and manipulative villain. (See here for the full review).

8th – The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File marks a genuine stage in evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan. His previous films have typically been highly entertaining action-thrillers often serving to revere classic sequences of yesteryear; however with The Berlin File the high-octane set-pieces, kinetic camera movement and rapid editing combine to create his most exhilarating film to date. With an all-star cast featuring Ha Jeong-woo, Jeon Ji-hyeon, Han Seok-kyu and Ryoo Seung-beom, The Berlin File is one of 2013’s great genre films. (See here for the full review).

9th – How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

How to Use Guys with Secret Tips (남자사용설명서)

2013 was full of cliched and generic rom-coms – which made How to Use Guys with Secret Tips even more refreshing. Criminally under-seen due to a release date alongside Miracle in Cell No. 7 and New World, director Lee Won-seok’s debut is simply bursting with colour, vitality, inventiveness, and most importantly – brains. Spinning the cliches upside down, director Lee continually pokes fun at modern masculinity as well as highlighting the sexism that exists in contemporary Korea in a uniquely humourous fashion, combining to produce one of the most enjoyable and downright fun rom-coms in quite some time. (See here for the full review).

10th – Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정)

Premiering at the Jeonju International Film Festival, director Jung Young-heon’s Lebanon Emotion was far and away the most interesting and engaging drama to appear. Initially a potent tale of grief and despair, the film transforms into an otherworldly story of togetherness, revenge, and danger. Director Jung’s history as a cinematographer is apparent in every scene, featuring gorgeously haunting landscapes alongside some great character development and quirky humour. Bizarrely missing out on the top prize at JIFF, Lebanon Emotion was rewarded at Moscow by scooping the best director award, and he is certainly a talent to watch. (See here for the full review.)

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A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

The Fake (사이비) – ★★★★☆

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비) is a brutal and intense viewing experience, with the shocking and visceral manner in which depicts a community under siege quite brilliantly executed. Director Yeon Sang-ho (연상호) has taken the dark themes he explored so wonderfully in King of Pigs (돼지의 왕) and expanded them into a wider sociological framework, and the result is a darkly explosive and constantly compelling social commentary.

A small village deep in the countryside is under threat from the construction of a new reservoir, which will submerge the whole community. With few options, the villagers turn to the newly formed church and its young priest for salvation, with their faith strengthened ever further by witnessing ‘miracles’. As their religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical, a violent and abusive man returns to the village and, horrified by what he sees, attempts to reveal the machinations behind the church’s intent. Yet who should the country-folk believe – a man of God, or the devil himself?

The Fake adopts many of the conventions from the western genre as a lone ‘anti-hero’ returns from the wilderness to a corrupt civilisation. Director Yeon takes such motifs and intelligently plays with them in deconstructing Korean society, religion, and morality in ways both overt and nuanced, balancing them all incredibly well. Such a penetrating examination is conducted through the outsider character, who is far more devil than saint as he steals, drinks and beats women for his own selfish gain. Yet his status as an outsider also grants him the freedom of perception. With the threat of the reservoir – a wonderfully symbolic biblical flood – approaching, a con man and his young sidekick priest all too easily manipulate the villagers into doing their bidding by appealing to their base fears and desires. As the outsider attempts to reveal the scam and help them, the story explores just how illogical and frightening society can become when an ideology built on false promises is introduced and adhered to.

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

Religious fervour becomes increasingly fanatical as perceived threats loom on the horizon

The examples of fanaticism that increase throughout the film are wholly believable, as the country-folk are continually duped by false miracles and promises set up by the clergy and his financial backer. As sick people refuse medicine in favour of ‘holy water’, women become prostitutes, as well as villagers selling property in order to donate to the church, The Fake is exemplary in depicting not only the seemingly inherent corruption within religious institutions but also the sheer ignorance of society as a whole, especially when under threat. There are no conventional ‘good’ characters to be found within the world of The Fake and as such the atmosphere generated is deeply intense and disturbing, and as the community continues to descend further into a moral abyss the film is consistently riveting.

It is also wonderfully ironic that the ‘saviour’ of the village is akin to the devil personified. At times even wielding a forked weapon and using fire, the outsider is an appalling brute who destroys everyone in his path and is routinely expelled from the community as the spawn of satan. His evil ways while speaking the truth are counter-balanced with the priest who behaves saintly while telling lies, and their interactions and conflicts are intelligent as well as explosive. The violence that occurs due to their personal war is ferociously bloodthirsty, with the fluidity of the animation a remarkable evolution for director Yeon. Indeed, with the exception of one rather ‘blocky’ church dancing scene, The Fake sports impressive visuals throughout whilst retaining director Yeon’s distinct style, with his use of colour and shadow adding tremendous weight to the intensity of the story.

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth – The Fake examines the nature of religion

Verdict:

The Fake, director Yeon Sang-ho’s second film, is a brutal, dark, and intense viewing experience that examines a rural community manipulated by a religious institution. Employing genre conventions from the western, director Yeon intelligently explores Korean social issues through the increasing conflict between con artists, duped villagers and evil men. The Fake is a genuine evolution of style for the director, and is a continually riveting and explosive social commentary on the nature of morality.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

For exciting new Korean films, the Korean Cinema Today program at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) highlights some of the best and latest productions emerging from the industry.

Korean Cinema Today is separated into two sub-categories – Panorama and Vision. While Vision explores the latest independent films and exciting new filmmaking talent, Panorama showcases some of the big domestic and internationally acclaimed films, as well as more high profile world premieres.

The 14 films in Panorama 2013 contains some of the biggest names working in the industry today. For arthouse fans, Kim Ki-duk’s highly controversial Moebius, as well as two Hong Sang-soo films – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi – make appearances. Two directorial debuts are included in the form of superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s Fasten Your Seatbelt, and veteran actor Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star. King of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho’s latest animation The Fake is featured. There are also exciting new projects that involve crowdfunding, human rights issues, and the debut of K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in a lead role.

For the lowdown on all the films within the sub-category, please see below.

Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

Abbi (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Director: Jang Hyun-soo (장현수)

Synopsis: Abbi – or rather, Twisted Daddy – is a drama about a father whose dedication to his son becomes out of hand. Working hard to ensure his son can study law and become successful, the aging father risks everything.

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Director: Kim Tae-yun (김태윤)

Synopsis: Crowdfunding was sourced to produce this real life legal drama about a woman who contracts leukemia while working at a Samsung factory. The film follows the family’s efforts overcome the disease as well as the corporation responsible.

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

Director: Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완)

Synopsis: The Berlin File was a big hit upon release earlier his year. With an all-star cast including Ha Jeong-woo and Jeon Ji-hyeon, the action-thriller showcased director Ryoo’s style like never before. For the full review, please click here.

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director: Yeon Sang-ho (연상호)

Synopsis: Following on from his hugely successful film King of Pigs, director Yeon Sang-ho employs his biting cultural critique stylisation to explore corrupted religious officials who are holding a small town to ransom.

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Director: Ha Jeong-woo (하정우)

Synopsis: Fasten Your Seatbelt – or ‘Rollercoaster‘ in Korean – marks superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s directorial debut. The comedy sees mismatched characters collide when their plane encounters a typhoon.

God's Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

Director: Lee Jang-ho (이장호)

Synopsis: Lee Jang-ho was a prominent director during the 1970s and ’80s, and after an 18 year hiatus has re-entered filmmaking with God’s Eye View. The film explores a group of missionaries whose faith wanes after abduction by Islamic rebels.

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Director: Kim Sung-su (김성수)

Synopsis: A co-production between Korea and Japan, sci-fi Genome Hazard depicts a man seemingly losing his sanity following the apparent death of his wife. Director Kim previously worked with Park Chan-wook and Son Il-gon.

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

Directors: Min Yong-keun (민용근), Lee Sang-cheol (이상철), Shin A-ga (신아가), Park Jung-bum (박정범)

Synopsis: Produced by the National Human Rights Commission, this omnibus film represents radically different stories about people living on the fringes of society, and the hardships they endure.

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Director: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)

Synopsis: Moebius was marred by controversy before it was released.  Kim Ki-duk’s psychosexual thriller examines a family torn apart by adultery, penis dismemberment, and incest.

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

Director: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Synopsis: Town trilogy and The Weight director Jeon Kyu-hwan explores the life of an impulse disorder patient and his long-suffering family in My Boy. cultural attitudes towards mental health and the medical system are examined.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: University student Haewon feels lonely following her mother’s departure for Canada, and contacts married lover – and professor – Seong-joon. A story of a young woman’s quest for identity.

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: Sunhi is a film student who, wishing to continue her studies in America, seeks a recommendation letter from her professor. Yet in doing so, she unwittingly allows 3 different men attempt to advise her over her future.

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Director: Shin Yeon-shick (신연식)

Synopsis: A sequel of sorts to Rough Cut, Rough Play is concerned with a rising film star who becomes involved with gangsters, leading to a downward spiral. Based on an idea by Kim Ki-duk, the film features K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in the lead role.

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Director: Park Joong-hoon (박중훈)

Synopsis: Veteran actor Park Joong-hoon makes his debut with Top Star, a film about a talent manager who suddenly becomes a superstar. Yet as his popularity increase, so does his arrogance and determination to stay at the top.

 

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
A priest telling lies or a devil telling the truth - The Fake examines the nature of religion

Adult Animation ‘The Fake’ (사이비) to get World Premiere at Toronto Film Festival

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director Yeun Sang-Ho (연상호), the man behind the highly acclaimed animated drama King of Pigs (돼지의 왕), is to have the world premiere of his latest film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Fake (사이비) is a powerful socio-cultural examination regarding the nature of organised religion. When a man enters a rural community, he discovers the church minister is conning the community for his own nefarious purposes. Indeed, the word ‘사이비’ is quite specifically tied to religion, and roughly translates as ‘religious scam.’

The Fake will be screened under the ‘Vanguard’ program at TIFF, intended as an outlet for provocative and daring films. From the trailer below it’s very clearly a director Yeun film, and if it’s even remotely as insightful – or scathing – as King of Pigs then it’ll be a film to watch out for.

The Fake features the vocal talents of Kwon Hae-hyo (권해효), Oh Jeong-se (오정세), Yang Ik-joon (양익준), and Park Hee-bon (박희본).

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